Sunday Stories: “The Directions”


The Directions
by Maggie Queeney

She told him, “You can’t trust them.”

He had been staring out the passenger window, head turning to track an approaching tree. His voice sounded far away against the glass, as if he, and not the roadside, were receding. “My teeth?”

“Your teeth? No,” she said and added the word idiot silently to the end of the sentence, a silent punctuation. “You can’t trust dentists,” she explained, having retreated into the patient tone she used with the screaming children at the book store as the mothers stood nearby, beaming with pride at the product of their own mute, stupid bodies. For those women, she elongated each word as if the letters were syrup. Over her nametag, she smiled.

As a teenager, she had read a theory of the origin of smiling in one of the glossy magazines her mother never read but kept fanned over the living room coffee table. In the article, an anthropologist posited that her distant ancestors had, upon meeting a threat embodied in a stranger, bared their teeth. When her ancestors wanted something another did not want to give, they bared their teeth. When they submitted to another with who was stronger, who had greater resources, they bared their teeth. It had the terrible inevitability and elegance of truth. She carried the knowledge with her for years, close as a locket under her shirt, burnished by the smiles she saw flashing white and off-white and yellow-gold and dark and crooked.

“The tooth looks fine. Let me look,” she directed Mark at the red light and he, dutiful husband, pulled his lip back in a snarl. The gum was liver-red and smelled of a frothy, almost chemical rot, jarring as two fingers jammed into her nostrils. Smell had amplified, became nearly three-dimensional, in the past two weeks. She had read it could happen. After bubbling rashers of bacon had driven her to vomit into the kitchen sink, bent at the waist like a supplicant, she had thought it was possible. She bought and took the test in the bathroom of the grocery store, directions opened in a map over her naked knees. When she left the plastic wand underneath a bouquet of damp paper towels, it could have belonged to anybody. 

The small molar looked like the others: a pale yellow, imperturbable little skull. It looked patient. It looked polite. But the dentist had talked about the jaw hidden under, the hollowing bone. He had talked with his back to them, staring into the light box where he traced the blackness in Mark’s mouth with one latex-bound fingertip. Her eyes plucked the strands of gray shot through the hair at the dentist’s temple.

That afternoon, she reviewed the printed directions she had been given and heard the voice of the dentist. He had read the worksheet word for word, as if the directions were new to him as well, and in the sun-amplified kitchen, each stress, each vowel pulled long and the hard, clipped gs and ks that sounded like a horse hooves striking a street in his mouth, rose like a plume of smoke from the sheets.  She scratched arrows next to the points that required action, the steps that led her into the appointment the next morning, when the word cadaver stopped her. The pen bled an expanding pool of red into the v and e and r.

She should not alarm Mark, not the night before a surgery. She waited. In the expanding ring of the cooling dinner, she brought it up in the voice she would use to remark on a detail noted in a placard marking a historical spot at the side of the road: “Did you know,” she asked, “that the bone they put in your jaw is cadaver bone?”

Her fork sunk into a broccoli stem and tinged the plate below and she watched Mark manipulate his dinner into small heaps. Even after three years of marriage, she could not read him. She worried there was not much to read. He watched the fork in his hand.

“No. I guess I didn’t know that.”

“Does it…bother you?” She had been certain he would be shocked, disgusted. She had not anticipated this seamless calm, this window-like reply. Word by word, she groped the sentences out. “I mean, it’s dead. It’s a dead person. Inside you.”

He still didn’t look up. “It’s from a donor. Just like if I needed a kidney or a heart. They’d be dead too, I guess. But the people live and then they live, again.” His hand and fork moved clockwise, taking one bite from each dish in turn, a small, simple dance. He seemed satisfied..

She turned back into her own thoughts and felt present again, how a mirror is charged by the person staring into it. Her hand fed her mouth. One task bled into the next until, side-by-side, they lay in bed. Deep in her body, she was hardening. Her inside was taking other shapes; limbs and digits were beginning to articulate.  She slept and dreamt of the dark, unmoving ceiling. 


The next morning, she sat in the waiting room alone and paged through the heavy, finger-anointed pages of the housekeeping magazines, then the beauty titles, and was eyeing the golfing/fishing/automotive rack when she saw a paper folded in half, just as she had folded the directions, below a chair at her right. She bent to retrieve what she thought was hers, but opened a coloring packet for children exploding with erratic shots of warm-hued crayons tangling the lower corner of the page. The top page was a worksheet titled “Shakespeare’s Dentist.”

The first sentence read, “Going to the dentist could cost you your life.” Below a lengthy paragraph stood outlines of teeth creatures with faces and limbs and eyes and smiles filled with smaller teeth. As if teeth had teeth. As if a cartoon pig would wear a chef’s hat and eat a pulled pork sandwich, like on the sign of the barbeque shop across town. She turned the sheet over to find a maze where a child had traced a path that united a toothbrush with an outline of a disembodied molar after several false starts. 

She returned to the first page and read that in Shakespeare’s time (no specific dates were given), the poor sold their teeth to be implanted into the mouths of the rich. The dentist would pull tooth after tooth from the donor’s jaw until one was found that fit. She read that when human teeth were scarce, dentists used the teeth of dogs and goats and baboons. When all other sources were exhausted, the historical dentist turned to soldiers and the dead. Over the office sound system a woman sang for someone to come back. She promised that she would never do it again, over and over.

That night, Mark lay down early. The swelling had blurred his face into another face and his voice sounded strange, smeared. Inside his jaw, the dead bone was knitting into the living bone. She brought him soup. She brought him tea. She watched his face as he watched the television. She looked into his eyes closely and tried to recall the exact patterns of gold and shades of brown shot through the irises. Had there always been that much green? She didn’t remember so much green.

Still slightly drugged, he tried to tell her something, to raise his head from the pillow, his fingers tightening around her wrist when she tried to stand from the edge of the bed. She told him to stop talking, that he would rip out his stitches, and he settled at the sound of her voice. He turned his head to the far wall and sighed the absolute sigh of a child. An hour later, she returned to reassure herself he was still breathing. His eyelids cracked to reveal paired crescents of unbroken white that followed her as she crossed the room to her dresser, where she disrobed with her back to his sleeping form. Her shadow cast by the side table lamp pulled over the floor to the far wall where her neck hit the baseboard and angled impossibly into the soft shape of her hair, the hard lines of her cheek and chin and nose.

She fell asleep watching the mute T.V. from the embrace of the aging living room recliner, the elastic waistband of her pants cutting a dark red ring into her waist.

In predawn light, she woke to a voice speaking so quietly that at first she thought it was music. The voice started and stopped in unfamiliar rhythms, rose and fell in an alien syntax. She listened as the window brightened the wall a white gold. Inside her hips, her body was hardening above the dark scribbling of pubic hair. She felt she could feel the cells dividing: one thing turning into another. Mark still slept in the bedroom. She fell back into a thin, light-steeped sleep and she dreamed him dark in the doorway, him lowering his dark, cold mouth to her waiting ear. He spoke not in words, but in notes, like music, like a whale or someone newly tongueless. His voice, for once, was beautiful, and she knew it was the dead bone talking, sounding through the instrument of her husband’s mouth. She listened as long as she could. What did it know. What else could she do. 


Maggie Queeney is a writer, visual artist, and educator. She is the author of settler, forthcoming from Tupelo Press. Recipient of the 2019 Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize, The Ruth Stone Scholarship, and a 2019 Individual Artists Program Grant from the City of Chicago, her most recent work is found or forthcoming in Guernica, The New Republic, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University, and reads and writes in Chicago.

Photo: Kevin Bation/Unsplash

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